Wildly Creative: How Tom Mangelsen shoots wildlife to save it

JACKSON, WY — Growing up in Nebraska, Tom Mangelsen was an avid hunter and angler. Now, he shoots wildlife very differently: with a camera instead of a gun. But protecting wildlife has always been at the core of what he does. And he’s found no better place to do it than Jackson Hole.

Mangelsen is the focus of this week’s Wildly Creative Instagram takeover, and his work could hardly be more appropriate. Wildly Creative, a campaign funded by the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board and sponsored by Center for the Arts and Center of Wonder, provides necessary tools, resources, and a platform for Jackson Hole’s vibrant arts community. It is proof that Jackson is as creative as it is wild, and indeed those traits often go hand-in-hand.

As a wildlife and landscape photographer, Mangelsen works quite literally at the intersection of wild — his subject — and creative — his medium.

Mangelsen is a world-renowned wildlife photographer who has traveled the globe to capture some of Earth’s most spectacular inhabitants. But he will never run out of subjects right here in Jackson. Indeed, Mangelsen said the opportunity to photograph wildlife in Jackson’s surrounding national parks is “far greater than probably any place else in the lower 48… It’s about as good as it can get.”

It was Jackson’s abundant wildlife that drew Mangelsen here more than 40 years ago. He had been living and shooting in Colorado, but realized after just one visit to Jackson that he “could see more wildlife in one day here than eight years in Boulder. It was kind of a no-brainer,” he said.

But it was Jackson’s spirit of conservation that made him stay. Mangelsen remembers sitting in Mardy and Olas Murie’s backyard, listening to their stories about conservation around the world. He was hooked. “I went back to Boulder and packed up my stuff,” Mangelsen said.

When Mangelsen sat down with Buckrail/Wildly Creative to reflect on his creative and conservation work, it became clear that the two are inseparable. Mangelsen is a successful wildlife photographer in part because he has the “gift of seeing,” as his assistant Sue Cedarholm calls it — but anyone can get lucky and point a camera at a grizzly. What sets Mangelsen apart is his utter devotion to wildlife and wild spaces. Many of his most iconic photos were days, months, even years in the making. They required the utmost patience and an intimate familiarity with animal behavior (Mangelsen’s academic background is in wildlife biology, which certainly helps). Mangelsen arguably spends more time with animals than he does with people — and he loves them fiercely. So it is only natural that he should want to protect them.

“I feel like I’m compelled to not just go out and take pictures, but also help bring a broader awareness,” Mangelsen said. “I think people who make a living off of wildlife one way or another should give something back.”

Wildlife conservation is a global struggle — Mangelsen laments the sheer volume of endangered animals in Africa, many of which he has photographed — but Jackson is the perfect petri dish of both conservation successes and strife.

Take grizzlies. Mangelsen didn’t see or shoot a grizzly until around 2007. It was 399, the now-infamous mama bear in Grand Teton National Park.

“There are so many damn bears now,” Mangelsen said — and that’s a good thing. Mangelsen’s photos and a talk he gave about grizzlies once prompted the Humane Society to add bears to the list of things the Humane Society should try to protect.

But grizzlies are back on the chopping block and only recently back on the Endangered Species list. For a while, there was a hunting season for them. They’ve been demonized

“Grizzlies are getting a real bad shift,” Mangelsen said.

Mangelsen has a laundry list of things that threaten wildlife today: climate change, changing habitat, resource depletion. The root cause, he said, is just “too many people.” But if people are the problem, they must also be the solution.

“Wildlife need people to speak up for them,” Mangelsen said. “And more people. There aren’t enough of us.”

So when Mangelsen points his camera at a beloved grizzly or bird or moose, he’s not just taking the animal’s picture. He’s giving it a voice. Capturing a moment in that animal’s life that humans can look at and actually care about.

“Usually people are drawn to someone’s work. Then if they appreciate it, they’re gonna pay attention.”

Be sure to follow Mangelsen’s Instagram takeover on Wildly Creative (@WildlyCreativeJH) to learn more about Mangelsen’s creative process and spirit of conservation.


Sponsored by:

Wildly Creative

We live at the intersection of Wild and Creative For generations artists, makers, creatives and explorers have found inspiration in the sweeping geographic and cultural panoramas of Jackson, Wyoming From visual and performing arts, to studio education,

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